Sunday, June 28, 1863, proved to be one of the most traumatic days in the history of York, Pa. For on that cloudy, overcast day, more than 6,000 enemy soldiers passed through or occupied the town and its environs. Four brigades of veteran infantry, four artillery batteries, a full regiment of veteran cavalry from West Virginia, a battalion of well known horsemen from Virginia, and a long train of ammunition wagons and ambulances would take position in York.
At 10:00 a.m., the vanguard of Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon’s veteran brigade of Georgia Confederate infantry marched into York from the west along the turnpike leading from Gettysburg. Cavalry and artillery also accompanied the general. He split his men into three parallel columns as they entered town using Philadelphia, Market, and King streets. Regimental bands played lively tunes such as Johnny Stole a Ham (derivatives of the popular tune are also known as Down in Alabama and Come Out of the Wilderness).
Brightly colored Confederate battle flags fluttered over long columns of dust-covered, begrimed Southern soldiers, most of which were in sore need of a bath and a change of clothing. Many were barefoot, some with their feet bandaged and bloody after their shoe soles had worn out after days of tramping in the packed gravel turnpike.
To the consternation of many of the onlookers, among the early arrivers were Gordon’s pioneers, carrying pick axes and shovels. One observer recoiled in fear, exclaiming that “the rebels have come to dig our graves.”
General Gordon, a businessman and attorney before the war, paused at least twice, perhaps three times, to make various speeches to the assembled throngs, many of which were dressed in their Sunday best as they strolled to church. He tried to reassure the populace that his men were “Southern gentlemen” who intended no harm. However, they hauled down the town’s Union flag as well as other smaller privately-owned flags and some accounts suggest desecrated at least one of them by tying it to a horse’s tail and dragging it on the street as the column passed through town to Wrightsville.
Other Confederates snatched the hats from the heads of onlookers, including teenaged David Landis.
Guards had been posted at key intersections, and they kept the columns moving eastward. Within two hours, the Georgians had cleared the town, but now more trouble arrived from the north as a second major column tramped into York. This was Col. I. E. Avery’s North Carolina brigade. Two other CSA brigades had peeled off to occupy flour mills and farms north of town.
Major General Jubal Early soon arrived about noon or so and established his headquarters in the county courthouse on E. Market Street. He demanded a huge ransom, including $100,000 in cash and huge quantities of shoes, supplies, and foodstuffs. Many of his men in the afternoon and early evening strolled York’s streets, conversing with those residents who were outside. Others broke into or forced shopkeepers to open locked stores (it was Sunday and nothing of course was open in those days). A few Rebels over indulged in rye whiskey and provost marshals began rounding up the drunks.
Meanwhile, Gordon’s Georgians tramped eastward through Freystown and Hallam before skirmishing with more than 1,000 hastily assembled and scarcely training militiamen at Wrightsville. The militia had earlier been reinforced with veterans from the Army of the Potomac, men who were convalescing patients from the U. S. Army hospital in York. They added a steadying influence, as well as skill with a musket. They delayed Gordon long enough to allow the majority of the defenders to withdraw across the Columbia Bridge into Lancaster County, ordering civilians to burn the bridge behind them to prevent Confederate passage.
By nightfall, the entire bridge was on fire, lighting the night sky for miles.
Indeed “the dogs of war” had arrived, as Mary Cadwell Fisher wrote. She was the wife of York’s judge, a man who had been forced to turn over the keys to the courthouse to General Early.
No one quite knew what the next day would bring for the residents of York and Wrightsville.
So, the debate continues to this day — should York have surrendered? The town fathers had many choices, including resisting the occupation, passively standing by as the Rebels arrived, going out to negotiate, etc.
Which course do you believe they should have taken?